The term “passing,” when used in relation to the trans community, refers to the concept of a trans person appearing to be cisgender based on their presentation. “Passing well” would mean that the trans person in question presents in a way that is indistinguishable (or nearly) from a cisgender person of that same gender identity.
For those who choose to medically transition (and present in a way that is gender conforming), reaching a point of being indistinguishable from their cisgender peers on the basis of appearance can feel very validating and relieving. Many trans people who do not pass are at a heightened risk of targeted discrimination and violence, and the awareness of their situation can weigh heavily and manifest as depressive or suicidal symptoms if they are without support. Changing their appearance and body to better reflect how they feel, as well as flying under the radar of anyone who would challenge or threaten them, is a very appealing concept to many. There are a number of trans people who decide to live “stealth” once they have reached a point in their transition that passing becomes the norm for them, and this means that they do not reveal their transgender identity to others and live as though they are cisgender.
But while passing is considered by many in and outside of the transgender community to be the “goal” of one’s transition, this way of thinking easily lends itself to being binarist—and even transphobic to nonbinary people and/or other trans folks who do not want to, or cannot, conform to these cis + binary expectations of how they should look. Even within the trans community, people who do not want to or cannot pass face adversity from other trans folks who subscribe passionately to the concept of passing as the ideal.
Language That may Seem Supportive, but is NOT:
It’s understandable and encouraged that you want to show your support for a trans person you know, but here are some common things that trans people get a lot, and DON’T want to hear when they’re transitioning and/or do not pass:
- “You look really good for a trans person!”
- This response implies that being bad/ugly/not “good enough” is the default for trans people; instead, just leave off “for a trans person” and the comment is fine.
- “I would have never guessed you were trans, good job!”
- Similar to the first, this implies that trans people who don’t pass are not doing a good job and that passing is the standard.
- “Wow, you look just like a man/womxn.”
- This comment suggests that trans people do not typically look the way they “should” and also that they are not really men/womxn.
- Any question regarding genitalia; these are never appropriate.